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Library Happenings – Medieval book details remedies for maladies

By Angie Georgeff

Because our budget is so tight, we try to choose the books that will give us the biggest bang for our buck. For the most part, we buy books that our patrons have requested and books that have broad and enduring appeal.

We want them flying off the shelves, not sitting around gathering dust. When I came across the captivating title “Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages” recently, I ordered the book for myself but not the library. I read more nonfiction than most of our patrons do, and Jack Hartnell’s book is the kind of quirky history I enjoy.

And I am indeed enjoying it. I also am marveling at how I came to be here, when my ancestors had to survive all of those bizarre medieval medical practices. During the Middle Ages, respect for the wisdom of Greek and Roman classical scholars reigned supreme.

Most maladies were regarded as an imbalance in the four humors that determined a person’s health and temperament. Since bleeding and purging were commonly used remedies, I honor my ancestors for having been tough old birds who managed to survive in spite of their medical treatment.

The book is divided into chapters that deal with each body part in turn from head to toe. My favorite so far has been the hand, because of the link it has to books and reading. During the Middle Ages, books were handwritten by scribes, many of whom were monks.

In northern Europe, the material on which these manuscripts were written was parchment or the finer and more expensive vellum, both of which were made from laboriously prepared animal skins. The best books were lavishly illuminated with brilliantly colored illustrations. They were very expensive and highly prized possessions.

They were not disposable, like a modern paperback, but used for centuries. We know that readers followed the text with their fingers because of the dark streaks now visible between the lines in many surviving manuscripts. An intriguing question that Hartnell raised is whether medieval readers read silently to themselves or aloud as they followed with their fingers as beginning readers do.

The owners of manuscripts used them as they saw fit, making notes in the margins and using manicules to draw attention to important points.

What is a manicule? It’s a punctuation mark drawn in the shape of a hand pointing with an elongated finger. Many were embellished with cuffs and some with attached arms. In a number of well-used medieval texts, notes and punctuation from a succession of readers still survive as a remnant of their thoughts.

While it is charming to see notes and manicules in medieval manuscripts, please remember that manicules and highlighters have no place in our modern library books! Happy reading!